As soon as I get off the tube I feel like I’m in a different universe. Like I’ve traveled to the future. A steel-and-glass future, where everything and everyone is sleek and modern. Gone are the cobblestones and pastels of my usual London neighborhoods. This place is all skyscrapers and stock tickers. I’ve arrived in Canary Wharf, and I couldn’t feel farther from the London I know. But there’s more to this part of the city than I realize, and I soon find it’s not as alien as I imagine.
Canary Wharf Guide
I used to come to Canary Wharf a lot. I had a few friends who worked in this financial district and would travel out east to meet them for happy hour drinks. The post-work scene is buzzing here on weeknights, and we always found ourselves at one of the many bars and pubs around the area.
But it’s been a long time since I last ventured over to these docks-turned-skyscrapers, and now that I’m back there are even more tall buildings and blue button-downs than there were before.
At first I feel like the place is soulless. I’m used to mews and cottages, after all. But as I start to walk around and explore Canary Wharf I find there’s more here than I suspect.
Food and Restaurants in Canary Wharf
First I discover some food trucks and pop-ups that bring color and character to the area. From the ones in Reuters Plaza to those along South Quay Walk, they’re welcome additions to the neighborhood.
But it’s not all new here. A number of years ago I took a tour of Billingsgate Fish Market, a huge industrial seafood market that sits low next to the tall buildings around it. It’s a fascinating place to visit, and one of the few hold-outs from a previous era.
There’s more inside the sleek new buildings, too. I head to Street Feast at Giant Robot to meet friends and find myself in an open space with vendors selling everything from Asian buns to chicken and burgers. Add to that a terrace with a view and an urban roof garden at the back that makes me feel like I’m in Singapore, and I start to like this place even more.
Speaking of more, a lot of central London restaurants have opened satellite locations in Canary Wharf over the years, so it’s become a hub for food in addition to finance. From Roka to Boisdale, there’s no shortage of good choices here.
Things to Do in Canary Wharf
There are a lot of things to do in Canary Wharf besides eating, too. From huge shopping malls on the lower levels of the office buildings to concerts and performances in the squares, there’s always something going on.
And one of those things is the Museum of London Docklands. I missed this place on all my previous visits, but I’ve finally managed to make my way here this time. The free museum offers floor after floor of exhibits and exhibitions about Canary Wharf’s history. What I always thought was a modern marvel turns out to have a long back story.
In 1802, the West India Docks were built to cope with increasing shipping traffic on the Thames. A lot of the funds were put up by London’s Caribbean plantation owners, who were actively involved in the grim Triangle Trade between the UK, Africa, and the Americas.
The West India Docks became some of the most important of their kind and were active through the 1960s. They declined in use and closed in 1980, but in 1988 the financial hub that’s now Canary Wharf started rising from their ashes.
Learning about the history of the area gives me a new perspective on Canary Wharf. In fact, the museum is housed in one of London’s oldest dock warehouses. When I go outside and look at the building I realize my impression that the area is all new construction is wrong.
Then I find even more history to the east. Blackwall Basin is full of colorful canal boats that add character to the straight-laced skyline.
And Coldharbour is lined with heritage houses that could be straight out of a west London mews. Its famous pub, The Gun, is as historic as London’s riverside pubs get—legend has it Lord Nelson came for romantic rendez-vous—and has a great terrace on the Thames.
And speaking of the Thames, on the west side of Canary Wharf there’s a ferry to central London. It’s a fun alternative to taking the tube, and a good way to get a river cruise out of a trip from the city center to the financial hub and back.
By the time I’ve finished exploring Canary Wharf, I’m surprised at how much more there is here than I realized. I still prefer a mews house to a skyscraper and a park to a mall, but I have a much better appreciation for the area, its history, and its food scene than I did before. And given how much construction is still going on, I have a feeling my next trip will yield a lot more discoveries.
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